Ask any musician who’s worked with Blake Mills to talk about him and the responses range from emphatic (“Blake Mills is a damn fine guitar player,” says keyboardist Benmont Tench) to rhapsodic (“He’s the first virtuoso I’ve ever met who doesn’t let his virtuosity get in the way,” says guitarist/record producer Tony Berg). Then there are those who are reduced to astonishment. “Who makes these people? How do these people happen?” says Mills’ frequent collaborator Jackson Browne.
One of the most in-demand session players and sought-after touring guitarists in the business, Mills has accompanied such artists as Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams, Neil Diamond, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, Cass McCombs, Kid Rock, Band of Horses, and many others. When producers like Rick Rubin need a guitarist, Mills is the first call thanks to his flawless technique, uncanny confidence, and unique interpretation of every piece of music he touches.
In 2010, the California native quietly released his debut solo album, Break Mirrors, which he intended to serve as a calling card for his session work. But when friends and fellow musicians began testifying about the beauty of the album, that small group of fans quickly turned into a larger group of devoted followers. By the end of 2011, several websites and bands were hailing Break Mirrors as one of the year’s best albums. Writing on his blog, Okkervil River singer Will Sheff called it “a singer-songwriter album that on first listen feels earthy and humble but has a secret swagger to it, and an offhand craftiness, and more original ideas than on most records I’ve heard in the last three years.”
Since releasing Break Mirrors, Mills says he’s been “listening, writing, playing, and watching my social life wither away like the ice caps.” Characteristically humble, what he means is that he’s not only been busy playing with and producing a variety of other artists, but he’s also been working on his second solo album, Heigh Ho, which he will release on Verve Records in September. “The goals on Break Mirrors were experimentation and discovery,” Mills says. “And the goals for Heigh Ho were sonics and capturing performance. I love how my first album sounds, but I’ve heard a number of records released since then that seem to sonically focus on making things ‘lo-fi’ and ‘ambient’ and I felt compelled to go in a new direction for this material. I also wanted to have more input from other musicians, instead of doing everything myself.”
To that end, Mills asked several of his “heroes” for two weeks of their time to gather and track his songs live at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Studio B, which he describes as “one of my favorite-sounding rooms in America.” The players are some of the most sought-after, talented vets in the business: Jim Keltner, Tony Berg, Don Was, Jon Brion, Benmont Tench, Rob Moose, Gabe Kahane, Mike Elizondo, Griffin Goldsmith, and Fiona Apple (who duets on “Seven” and “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”).
“Blake arranged the music the way that Cézanne would’ve filled a canvas,” Don Was notes of his experience playing in Mills’ band. “He’s a mind-blowingly great artist with the type of deep vision that is the hallmark of true genius. It’s so inspiring for musicians to play with a cat like that. If he asked us to play in orange, we wanted to give him a shade that burned so brightly as to blind the unsuspecting.”
“One of the reasons I think it worked out is because most of these people are great record producers in their own right,” Mills says. “Everybody was kind of producing themselves and listening to each other, so the performances have a lot of maturity and foresight. And some of my favorite-sounding records have been made in Ocean Way. It was built for Frank Sinatra because he didn’t always enjoy recording at Capitol. It’s one of the few remaining excellent drum rooms in Los Angeles. To be able to play with Jim Keltner [who’s played drums with John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and many others] on these songs, in that space — I never imagined that dream coming true. And having the continuity of that room on everything helped to bridge all of the variety on the record.”
Indeed the music on Heigh Ho, which Mills produced himself, manages to reference a range of genres without really belonging to any — a neat trick that Mills appreciates. “I think it’s truly necessary to make music that is without genre,” he says. “Fiona Apple’s quote stands the test of time for me, which is that there are only two genres of music: honest and dishonest. Honesty is the quality that I respond to in other people’s art, and what I aspire to achieve with my own work as well.”
That honesty bleeds through on every song, including the opening track “If I’m Unworthy,” a stark number consisting of Mills accompanying himself on electric guitar, and the closer, “Curable Disease.” “The line ended up as ‘Love may be a curable disease,’ due to a suggestion from Jackson Browne,” Mills says. “He was the first person I played that song for, and I’d written it as ‘love is just,’ or something more of a statement. He recommended making it a suggestion: ‘Love may be a curable disease.’ He really helped reveal the sentiment of that song with just one word.”
Lyrically, Mills says he was inspired by three things: “Situational awareness, my weakness for clarity, and the impossible dream of someday being understood. When I first started writing for this record, I tried to be a little less personal and more topical, or character-based,” he explains. “I figured I’d be more comfortable if I could write like Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, or Mark Knopfler or any of those guys who can exist as a character for a song and then move on to something else. But I couldn’t do it. Nothing I wrote felt honest to me. Eventually, I ended up back to something I guess I have a strong point of view about: myself.”
“One thing I hope releasing this album does is help me put a punctuation mark on this chapter and that I can get to work writing again,” says Mills, who will also hit the road for a headlining tour behind Heigh Ho in the fall. “I’m looking forward to turning the page and working on the next thing.”